On The Jungle

Well! I have just read Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle. Not the most relaxing subject matter for the first book of summer break, but I was eager to read it after studying the Gilded Age and Progressive Era in America in my latest history class. During the semester, we read Twenty Years at Hull-House by Jane Addams and looked at some photographs by Jacob Riis and Lewis Hine, and all of the above piqued my interest in urbanization, industrialization and immigration in the early 1900s.

Not to mention that my great-grandpa was part of the wave of immigrants featured in The Jungle, arriving in the US from southern Italy around 1904.

Obviously, the most shocking thing about the first part of the book is the graphic description of the meatpacking plants. But according to the book’s introduction, this wasn’t necessarily Sinclair’s original aim. He was aiming to expose the horrifying economic, social and sanitary conditions surrounding the wage earning immigrants in the packing plants.

I find it fascinating, but not surprising, that the public latched onto the horrors of the meatpacking industry — but appear to have rather ignored the plight of the immigrants. The Pure Food and Drug Act was passed soon after the book’s publication in 1906, riding on a wave of attention from the book and help from then-President Roosevelt, again according to the introduction to the book by Jane Jacobs. Of course readers were outraged about what was being sold to them. And perhaps they were also moved by the conditions of the workers described in the book, but that’s certainly not what we hear about today.

Above all, this book fits right in with other works from the era — Addams’ Hull-House, Bellamy’s Looking Backward, etc.  Though the majority of the book describes absolute wretchedness, and it seems that it will end with the complete annihilation of all the characters in the grinder of the meatpacking industry, the fundamental optimism of the era shines through when Sinclair finally presents socialism as a solution to all the horror and sorrow splattered across the 350 pages that precede the last couple of chapters.

Frankly, I’m surprised this book is so widely prescribed for young Americans to read with its final chapters on socialism intact, lest they realize they’re being groomed as new cogs in the capitalist machine as described in The Jungle.  I’m not convinced that so much has really changed since 1906. Sure, maybe many workers may be paid a decent salary, and maybe they experience a sense of control over their lives, but I see “the system” as definitely still wholly rigged and manipulated by a new set of trusts, most notably the finance industry, the wealthiest 1%, and yes, still the food industry.  See:  the 2009 bailout from Congress, agriculture vs. migrant workers, as well as fast food, Monsanto, the Occupy movement…

And of course, off I go into the world of marketing, which according to Sinclair is the most evil sector of all, creating an entire industry for itself and convincing people to buy things they don’t need (we know this is not how it *really* works….)

I plan to read The Octopus as my next study in the era. Before I do that, though, perhaps it’s time for some gossip magazines and some being thankful that even if the system is still rigged, at least there is a ruse of regulation and everyone I know is beyond being paid pennies to work in a slaughterhouse … for the time being.

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